People who refuse the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine will go to the back of the queue for inoculation, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.
Mr Varadkar said the State is on track to ease restrictions as planned from May 4th and that he expects more than 80 per cent of people to have received their first vaccine dose by the end of June.
The Government’s chances of meeting that target had been undermined this week by the announcement that Johnson and Johnson was pausing the distribution of its vaccine. Ireland had been due to receive 604,800 doses of it by the end of June.
On Wednesday, however, it was revealed that the EU is to receive an additional 50 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine with Ireland’s share amounting to 545,000 doses. The extra supply would make up most of the previous shortfall and so puts the Government back in a position to broadly stand over its earlier projections.
In the hours after the news regarding the Pfizer supply was received, the Irish Medical Organisation, which represents GPs, informed its members that the schedule for adminstering vaccinations to peope classified as “highly vulnerable,” or “vulnerable” had been recalibrated.
It said that Pfizer will be used in General Practice for vulnerable people aged 18 to 59. Deliveries of vaccines for those considered “highly vulnerable” will be spread across three weeks, commencing on April 26th. Second doses for these people and first doses for those considered “vulnerable” will begin to be administered on May 17th with second doses for for the “vulnerable” starting to be rolled out on June 14th .
The document suggests those over 60 will be invited to register on the online HSE portal to receive an invitation for a vaccine appointment. GPs were told that the vaccinations booked on the portal will commence next week.
It is thought these will be done using AstraZeneca and the Tánaiste’s comments suggest that those unwilling to receive this vaccine would face a significant wait to be offered an alternative.
Speaking on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland, Mr Varadkar said: “We are on track, the kids are back to school, the 5km rule is gone, we’re building houses again – we are on track both to ease restrictions as planned from May 4th and to have over 80 per cent of people receiving their first vaccine by the end of June.”
Mr Varadkar said the estimate regarding the vaccination rollout programme timeframe was “as solid as it can be” even if it has been changed 25 times, but it was necessary to be agile and respond as changes occurred.
He also said the possibility of extending the length of time between first and second doses was being examined but it was not going to happen to those who already had their first dose. However, it could be an option for younger people later.
Mr Varadkar added that at the end of April the Government would sit down and develop the plan for May. “What we’re planning is to allow more outdoor activities, a phased reopening of retail and personal services.”
When asked if this would include hairdressers, he said yes, but not on May 4th. “That’s unlikely, but over the course of the month of May there will be a phased reopening of personal services.”
When asked if he was being overly optimistic, the Tánaiste replied: “I’m forever being accused of optimism, but in a country full of pessimists and despondency it’s nice to have someone who thinks the other way, maybe.”
There were four things that would determine the pace of the reopening, he added; these were availability of vaccines, the variants, case numbers and “the state of hospitals.”
Mr Varadkar also defended the mandatory hotel quarantine system after it was suspended over a lack of availability. He said it was not as simple as the number of hotel beds available.
He warned that there was going to be an issue of people coming into the country illegally through Northern Ireland. At present, people travelling through Northern Ireland who have been in a “designated state,” within the previous 14 days are required to enter mandatory hotel quarantine.
The Government was also examining the possibility of fully vaccinated people not having to quarantine, but they were awaiting public health advice. He acknowledged that he did have reservations and questions about hotel quarantine, but said there was no question that he was “in the pocket of businesses or the airlines” as had been alleged.
In response to the suggestion by businessman Patrick Coveney that there would be an economic cost to the country because of the system, he said of course there would be an economic cost to be paid.
“If we are cut off for too long there will be economic consequences. That’s why the policy should not be a long term one. Any exit strategy will be based on the vaccination programme,” he said.